By Todd Northrop
This week we are seeing the largest lottery jackpots in history up for grabs to anyone spending as little as $2 for a ticket.
The $1.6 billion Mega Millions jackpot is certainly getting most of the attention, but the $620 million Powerball jackpot would be just as life-changing to the winner.
That's a total of more than $2.2 billion between the two games. It's not just life-changing money, it's multi-generational wealth.
When one or more tickets eventually hit all six numbers, that kind of money would make anyone temporarily lose their mind. Can you imagine?
If you happen to be that lucky winner holding the prized lottery ticket, here are answers to some of your first questions.
I've won. Now what?
Lottery officials recommend winners take a deep breath, put their winning ticket in a safe spot and consult with a reputable financial planner before visiting lottery headquarters to claim the prize. (Your winning ticket must always be claimed in the state in which you purchased the ticket.)
The first decision you hear people talking about is whether to take the cash option, which is currently $904.9 million for Mega Millions and $354.3 million for Powerball, or an annuity, with one initial payment and annual installments over 29 years. Nearly all winners opt for cash, but the annuity has advantages, as it reduces the tax bill a little and offers a stable flow of income that climbs by 5% annually.
But just because people talk about that being your first decision, it should not be. Your first decision should be who is on your financial team.
You will need a good lawyer, a financial planner, and an accountant. You will certainly want to add other team members down the road, such as a charitable portfolio manager, but don't feel you need to get them on board immediately.
Your team can help counsel you on which payout option is best for your situation, when and how to claim your jackpot, where to put all that money, how to manage publicity, and a thousand other questions you'll have. Your trusted team can keep you calm and knowledgeable as you navigate the new uncharted waters of your new wealth without making a wreck of things.
How long do I have to claim the jackpot?
States have different rules, so depending on where you purchased the ticket, you typically have either 180 days or a year to claim the jackpot. The one exception is New Mexico, which only provides 90 days to make the claim.
A complete list of claim periods by state can be found at USA Mega's Ways to Win Mega Millions page.
Do I get my money instantly?
No, you can't just cash one of those oversized checks shown in all the winner photos. Payment speed also varies by state, but a week or two is common. Carole Gentry, a spokeswoman for the Maryland lottery, said the requirement is seven to 10 days in that state.
Can I keep my name secret?
Lottery jackpot winners can remain anonymous in seven states: Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas. In Arizona, people who win more than $600 can keep their name secret for 90 days after claiming prizes, but after that names are public record. In Michigan, winners can remain anonymous unless they win Mega Millions or Powerball prizes.
There are also legal structures that can be created under which to claim the jackpot, which might provide a degree of anonymity. (That's why you have a good lawyer on the team.)
Some states have press conference requirements too, so you may have to be public about your claim, depending on the policies of the state you bought the ticket in. Again, your team can help you navigate these requirements to your best possible advantage.
Most people would be nervous at the thought of being front-and-center in a press conference, but keep in mind that some lottery officials say it's actually better to do a brief press conference than not.
The reason? Because even in states that allow for anonymity (or near anonymity through a trust), open records laws in the state might allow persistent reporters to pierce your veil of privacy and gain access to public records that contain your name. And such open records access might just surface something else about you that you would rather keep quiet.
By participating in a press conference, you essentially give the press the attention they want, and they won't be as hungry to dig through records looking for information about a "mystery winner".
What about taxes?
For winners of $5,000 or more, all states automatically withhold 24% in federal taxes before you get a dime. (For non-US citizens, that number is 30%.) But state taxes vary widely.
Some big states, including California, don't withhold taxes from lottery winnings, and some like Texas don't have individual income taxes at all. For others, the state takes a bite, especially in New York, where a winner would need to pay a state tax of 8.8%. Residents of New York City would pay an additional tax of 3.9%.
To see what the federal and state tax withholdings are initially made in your state, USA Mega has a Mega Millions Jackpot Analysis that even includes a year-by-year analysis of the annuity payouts. A Powerball Jackpot Analysis is also available.
Keep in mind, all we have discussed so far is the amount of taxes initially withheld before you get your money. There's more.
Melissa Labant, a tax policy expert at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, said winners should realize that while taxes are initially withheld when prizes are awarded, more money will likely be due at tax time as people suddenly are in up to a 37% tax bracket.
"That catches people off guard," she said. "You have to be prepared to write another check to the IRS in April."
This can also happen on the state level. For example, even though Delaware does not initially withhold any state taxes, you will need to pay a 6.6% state tax in April, plus if you live in Wilmington you'll add another 1.25%.
What are my taxes if I don't live in the state where I bought the ticket?
This can get complicated, but here's the rule of thumb: You will generally pay a net amount of the higher tax rate between the state you live in and the state where you bought the ticket.
For the most part winners pay taxes where they bought the ticket and then can get a credit on their taxes in their home state. The final tax bill can depend on if the state where you live taxes at a higher or lower rate than where you purchased the ticket. Rules vary by state, so this is a good topic for that financial planner. (It always comes back to the team.)
What are my next steps?
After you finish hiring your team, you have claimed your jackpot, and done whatever minimal amount of publicity that is necessary, that's a good time to take a nice long vacation. Get far away to someplace where you can unwind and nobody knows you.
We all see how fast the news cycles go these days. After a few weeks the media no longer will be talking about that billion-dollar jackpot and reporters will not be interested in camping out at your home.
That's not to say that you won't have friends, neighbors, and relatives — as well as complete strangers — hounding you for money and donations, but a large chunk of the attention will be diminished while you're relaxing on the beach.
What do I do when everyone asks for money?
Remember that team you hired? Because you should — you are paying them to help.
You will get hundreds or thousands of requests for money and you will hear every sob story in the book. Some of them might be real, but most are probably the result of good acting lessons.
By filtering every request for money through your team, you can deal with all those requests without feeling that truly good causes are being missed. (That might be a good time to add a charitable portfolio manager to the team.)
So when someone asks for money, no matter how pitiful the story sounds, always give it to your team to evaluate. Don't make split-second decisions on handing out money.
Unfortunately family may be the most difficult to deal with, and that's something you might want to think about how you want to handle while you're relaxing on the beach. Just do your best to avoid adding unnecessary drama to your life.
Most importantly, just smile and remember how lucky you are to be the winner of so much wealth that it can improve the lives of your family for generations to come.